The Impacts of Socioeconomic Status and Educational Attainment on Youth Success

The context where a young person lives has a significant impact on their ability to succeed academically and to achieve financial stability and professional success in adulthood. Decades of international and Canadian research demonstrate that youth in low-income communities face specific socioeconomic barriers that impact their chances of graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary opportunities in education, training, and meaningful employment (Gilmore, 2010; Lyche, 2010).

Every year, thousands of Canadian students who face such barriers make the life-altering decision to drop out of high school. Using Statistics Canada data, Uppall (2017) found that 2016, 8.5% of men and 5.4% of women aged 25 to 34 had less than a high school diploma, which is about 340,000 young Canadians. The cost of dropping out of high school is staggering and creates an achievement gap that can negatively affect youth for the rest of their lives. It impacts the student, their family, and their community, and takes a considerable toll on our nation’s health, social welfare systems, and economy.

Context Matters

These long-term impacts on young people begin with their immediate contexts. Where young people live impacts their chances of living fulfilling lives as adults, the facilities that young people can access, including community centres, libraries, and playgrounds, are critical to their positive development and future prospects. Limited access to caring adults, safe spaces, after-school and summer enrichment activities, proper nutrition, and other basic everyday needs has an adverse impact on young people’s social, emotional, and cognitive development. It introduces significant barriers to educational attainment, leading to underperformance at school. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many young people living in Canada’s low-income communities. It reduces their likelihood of finishing high school and moving on to post-secondary education or training, further entrenching their economic disadvantage (Hankivsky, 2008).

Parents and caregivers in low-income contexts often find it challenging to provide an environment that supports positive child and youth development (Fortin, 2016; Lyche, 2010). One of the most significant barriers that affects families in low-income communities is the status of the parents’ employment and the number of hours that they must work to provide for the family. Many families living in low-income communities rely on precarious employment—contractual, low-quality, and part-time employment that often does not offer any benefits (Gravel, Aubin, Cowell-Poitras, Daigneault & Toutant, 2013).

Research shows that parents from low-income contexts are often forced to focus their energy on the immediate financial concerns and may have limited time available for other tasks, such as supporting their children’s homework routines or school engagement (Clay, 2015). Since parents must devote a larger share of their time to ensuring a stable income, young people living in low-income communities often do not enjoy the same access to educational supports or the same level of parental attention as their middle-class peers.

Food insecurity [1] is yet another common barrier affecting families living in low-income contexts (Kirkpatrick & Tarasuk, 2009), who often lack access to fresh, nutritious foods. Low-income communities are frequently characterized by limited access to affordable nutritious food and are referred to as ‘food deserts’ (Toronto Foundation, 2016). More than 31,000 low-income households in Toronto are more than a one-kilometre walk from a supermarket or food outlet (Toronto Foundation, 2016). In addition, there are 15 less-healthy food outlets for every healthier one in the low socioeconomic areas in Toronto (Toronto Public Health, 2016). High school dropouts have been shown to have higher rates of negative health conditions and a shorter life span than those who graduate from high school (Hankivsky, 2008; Canadian Council on Learning, 2009).

Long-Term Impact

These socioeconomic barriers are highly detrimental to educational attainment. Although children from all socioeconomic classes leave school early without obtaining a diploma, many studies show that a family’s low socioeconomic status is the strongest predictor of early school leaving (Levin, 1995; Tilleczek, Ferguson, Edney, Rummens, Boydell, & Mueller, 2011; Tyler & Lofstrom, 2009). Children coming from families living in low-income neighbourhoods have a significantly higher likelihood of academic failure by grade 6 than children who have always lived in middle-income areas (De Civita, Pagani, Vitaro and Tremblay, 2004). In fact, living in low-income neighbourhoods leads to a higher probability of dropping out of high school (Brooks-Gunn, Duncan, Klebanov & Sealand, 1993; Brooks-Gunn, & Duncan, 1997; Duncan, Ziol-Guest, & Kalil, 2010). Youth whose parents have dropped out of school are more likely to drop out of school, creating intergenerational effects of unemployment or jobs defined by low salaries and little to no benefits (Fortin, 2016; Gilmore, 2010; Lyche, 2010). Without a high school diploma, finding a job becomes more challenging and positions held by those who have not completed high school have lower compensation rates (Gilmore, 2010).

Living in a low socioeconomic context can also negatively impact a young person’s ability to afford post-secondary education once they graduate high school, and can increase the likelihood of living in chronic low-income contexts as an adult (Galster et al., 2007; Statistics Canada, 2009). Fitting into an academic institution or becoming well-prepared for life after high school and early adulthood can be substantially more difficult for youth from low-income backgrounds. This impacts perspective jobs for these students in the future, as those who graduated from postsecondary education had an employment rate 30 percentage points higher than those who left high school before graduating (Fortin, 2016). Additionally, those   with more education have more stable positions and are less susceptible to economic downturns and changes associated with the 21st century workplace (OECD, 2012).

Impact on Employability and Canadian Economy

When young people face such barriers, the impact extends beyond their individual lives and their families, and into our communities and entire society. Young people who leave high school without obtaining a diploma are more likely to have lower incomes and therefore generate smaller tax revenues. According to the OECD (2012), Canadians with less than upper secondary education have earnings that are 22% lower than those of high school graduates.

As we have seen, many factors extending beyond an individual’s will contribute to the inability to finish high school. It is crucial to address this issue to improve what is both a personal and societal challenge. The OECD (2012) reports that lower levels of education limit a nation’s economic capacity, negatively impacts social cohesion and mobility, and results in higher spending on public health and social supports. Those who are not able to graduate from high school rely more on employment insurance payments than those who finish secondary education (Rouse, 2005; Hankivsky, 2008). Each high school graduate in Ontario saves the provincial government close to $3,000 per year on social assistance, healthcare, and criminal justice spending (McCarthur-Gupta, 2019).

Therefore, barriers to high school graduation impact the nation as a whole, as society receives less skilled workers and loses the earning potential and tax revenues they would have generated as highly skilled workers (Lyche, 2010; Hankivsky, 2008). In addition to lower tax revenues for the country, there are increased costs for those who do not graduate high school due to the higher strain on social services, health care, and higher rates of incarceration compared to those who complete secondary education (McArthur-Gupta, 2019; Lyche, 2010).

In contrast, promoting high school graduation can make populations more likely to volunteer, vote, and be involved in social aspects of the community (Hankivsky, 2008). Studies in Canada have proven the impact that education has on civic engagement. Hankivsky (2008) demonstrated that in rural areas, a person with a university degree is more than twice as likely to volunteer as those who leave high school before graduating. In addition to giving back to the community and voting, education positively impacts social and mental well-being, including self-esteem, good health, marital stability, safety financial support, job satisfaction, ability to plan for the future, and ability to socialize (Fortin, 2016). It is proven that increasing education attainment encourages a healthier lifestyle and participation in the community, therefore not only benefiting the individual but also the society they live in (OECD, 2012).


[1] Food insecurity is defined as inadequate access to food due to financial constraints. 

Work Cited

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